In A Perfect Day (Un día perfecto) (RTVE 2020-2027), the Spanish screenwriter and film director, Fernando León de Aranoa (Madrid 1968), addresses a series of his own lived experiences which were bound up, in his own words, with his having travelled to “disaster areas with teams of humanitarian aid workers” (Farias 11). The film is an adaptation of the novel Let It Rain (Dejarse llover) by Paula Farias, a doctor and aid worker. In light of her extensive experience of humanitarian work, Farias invited León de Aranoa to film a project undertaken by Doctors without Borders. A shocking encounter between aid workers and refugees prompted the making of this adaptation; it stems from the documentary about “the forced exile of thousands of children who, at nightfall every day, sought refuge from possible kidnap and coerced enlistment in a local guerrilla organization”, according to León de Aranoa (Farias 11). León de Aranoa was moved by a number of aspects of this story of hardship and despair, too familiar a tragic refrain in the history of all wars. He heard about Farias’s novel while shooting the documentary of the refugees’ exodus: “I was entranced by the surface simplicity of its plot and the depth of its meaning, which go hand in hand with one another. She writes about the cruelty of war, but she does so with a sense of humor and of the absurd” (Farias 12). Let It Rain and A Perfect Day tell the story of a group of humanitarian aid workers as they address a problem that, on the face of it, seems easy to solve: someone has thrown the corpse of a man into a drinking-water well. To prevent pollution, the body must be brought up from the water. The action required may be described as an act of “emergency water purification,” according to Farias (91). However, when the aid workers set out to solve the problem, the rope they are using to lift the body breaks, and it proves difficult to find a replacement.
The texture of Farias’s novel, its discursive fabric, is woven from threads of human memory – fleeting thoughts, recollections and feelings in a shifting story. The novel comprises a total of sixteen chapters; each chapter is preceded by a brief reflection that functions as a prologue to the events described, in which the author ponders the meaning and expresses her emotion with regard to the narrative action that follows. These prologues comprise her tone, perspective and main line of thought in relation to the events that she goes on to narrate. The discursive approach she takes is as follows: having disclosed the meaning of an experience, Farias outlines an action scene whose interpretative context is tinged with bitterness. Thus, the novel is composed of two, mutually complementary types of narrative: each reflective prologue is followed by an action scene. In his screenplay, León de Aranoa looks first to the action sequences presented between one reflection and the next, filling in the psychological gaps in characters and scenes sketched out in the original novel by drawing on his own experience and imagination, as well as on Farias’s interpolated reflections. Through this process of narrative adaptation, interwoven with the fabric of memory, León de Aranoa succeeds in tracing the line of reasoning threaded through the literary work, according to Cameron's approach, to comprehend/ understand films as dynamic systems (17-35). Moreover, this clear line of thought is reinforced in the screenplay in a number of ways: the physical limits of time and space in a film set over the course of a single day on a network of backroads; the map of the characters’ journey in the time they spend together and the achievement of their goal in two time-frames, time as experienced by the aid workers and the time of Nature. Another distinctive feature of the film is its sense of humor: “Humor is a kind of catharsis; it’s a way of distancing and protecting oneself so as to be able to bear the weight of things,” León de Aranoa remarked in an interview with RTVE, the national public broadcasting network in Spain. Hence, the elements of humor in the film, designed to help carry the burden of experience, invest the story with the instructive prerogative that shapes poetic catharsis in tragedy, as well as two levels on which to understand narrative conflict: the restoration of order and the endeavor to find some sign of hope in the midst of madness.
In fact, the twofold climactic ending offers a coherent resolution to the two conflicts played out in the film: one relates to the personal wishes and beliefs of the main characters (to do whatever must be done to take the body out of the well so as to prevent the water being polluted), and the other, a MacGuffin (the body floating at the bottom of the well) (see Figure 1). For this reason, causality seems incidental to the unfolding of the story. The paradox of the absurd cited by León de Aranoa in his comments on the novel and film centers on a rare phenomenon in the practice of screenwriting: that the conflict is resolved without any intervention on the main characters’ part is the effect of an intriguing rather than clunky deus ex machina. Thus, Léon de Aranoa succeeds in doing justice to the title of the novel, Let It Rain1
Levels of adaptation and narrative harmony
The intertextuality between novel, screenplay, and film operates across three levels of interpretation that are compatible with the unity of the work as a whole (Coëgnarts 297). The first level is the meaning that accrues to the life of the aid worker, the anthropological heart of the story (the soul of the aid worker, the soul of war); the second level is the meaning of the mission undertaken by the aid workers: to find a rope and, in a real sense, to challenge the war-torn status quo; and the third and final level is the most profound, enabling reflection on the end and purpose of the story: the transformation of the absurdity of the accidental causality in the plot as the ground for metaphorical eudaimonia. In fact, the structure of the work may be summarized on two levels or four, according to Maarten Coërgnarts (304), who takes into account the relations between the parts of the filmic system and image and the internal structure of the image), dealt with in greater depth here for the purposes of our discussion. In line with Tomashevski, Tzvetan Todorov refers to the thematic, causal and temporal levels (41-42). At the thematic level, the aid workers’ will, work, and effort to solve the problems of the needy are rarely rewarded fairly in terms of justice or success: “Aid workers endeavor to restore order to chaos. The first thing we wanted to record was the fact that they live under constant threat, as well as their sense of humor. Humanitarian organizations often do a lot for very little,” said León de Aranoa in Hoy digital. Thus, the fact that the tireless commitment of aid workers motivated by love to do a “foolhardy, inescapable, beautiful job” is rewarded with shelter, consolation and a real, albeit unexpected solution in the fictional form of a torrential downpour that washes away the chaos sounds an eloquent note at the end of the story.
On the other hand, the way in which the absurdity of the plot is transmuted into a causal narrative logic – the crux of the theoretical framework for this paper – occurs at the causal-temporal level. At the same time, and because the story has a happy ending, the link between this apparently accidental logic and the final eudaimonia is explored. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is defined as happiness or human flourishing, as set out primarily in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a). This paper takes on board how the theory of screenwriting may be enriched by revisiting Aristotelian poetics in the context of writing as such. The method of textual analysis deployed here draws on two principles of action or plot organization and reads them across the novel, screenplay and film: the rain and the sense of the absurd, two narrative driving forces that enable further exploration of the structure and meaning of the three texts, in addition to an account of their emotional dimensions: irrationality or absurdity, powerlessness and despair. The classical hallmarks of Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey underpin the character analysis carried out here. Nonetheless, as discussed below, the characters remain at a remove from the resolution of the conflict: that is, their involvement in the working of the plot is merely apparent, not operative. From a mythic point of view, however, another, new, invisible character is active in the story, and alluded to throughout: nature, the evolving presence of nature.
In short, the aim is to analyze how León de Aranoa’s screenplay and film depict and metaphorically encompass this evolving presence in Farias’s novel. In this regard, the film garners a mythic power; its circular structure makes it more coherent and inclines it towards the representation of myth. Nevertheless, the perception remains that the world of A Perfect Day is governed by chance. The film’s ending, however, is true to the deepest meaning of the story: uncertainty, apparent chaos and “the metabasis of chance in the world” may lead to happiness. When the aid workers have lost all hope, a kind of poetic justice (divine justice in the film’s own terms) comes into force. This may be read in line with Halliwell’s interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics (203), “(...) eudaimonia embodies, so to speak, a consummate equation between virtue and happiness” (defined as “the harmony of the individual will with the requirements of moral action”): virtue reflects the character of the aid workers, people who are more diligent than most; and happiness, the joyous reward of all – especially for viewers, who have seen the good that has been done there. Nevertheless, the aid workers do not resolve the problem themselves. In a strict sense, they become contemplators of the natural reason that orders chaos. By accepting things as they come, that reason manages to integrate the wishes of the aid workers for final good, and create a perfect harmony. In this sense, the concept of eudaimonia is not restricted to individual experience (Sherman 589), but to transcendental and friendship. It is thus verified that the film acts as a unitary whole, as is set in the Poetics. According to Reece (2019), the proper eudaimonia is a practical wisdom: “One who is a contemplator in Aristotle’s strict sense also has practical wisdom, and practical wisdom guarantees that one reliably chooses to act in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons”.
The causal and the accidental: natural principle and evolution in Aristotelian mimesis
Brian Richardson defines causality as “the connector”, “a causal system governing the world of fiction”, “a cluster of intersecting issues” (13). Given that it is a principle of order in the artificial world, “cause is one of the most significant and fundamental aspects of narrative” (13-14). In most instances, Todorov links causality to temporality (42-43); and, in general, the temporal succession of events goes hand in hand with causal links between them. While narration need not have meaning in itself, causality may make narrative meaningful to different degrees: the mythological and ideological. According to Todorov, the structuralists were interested in mythological meaning; but aside from a number of fixed senses, Todorov’s conception of mythic causality is when “action provokes a state or is provoked by a state” (43). In contrast, according to Grishakova’s reading of Todorov, ideological meaning is what Richardson refers to as philosophical meaning in modern texts, where “chance plays an important role.” Todorov defines a further type of causality found in modern texts: “irrational causality,” in fantasy or absurdist narratives (Grishakova 127) where events are dissociated.
Although Richardson himself held that the area had not been adequately theorized, in later studies he went on to describe “unnatural forms,” particular modes of storytelling in which a plurality of narrators voice descriptions of the inner worlds of other characters (Alber and Heinze 24). In addition to accepting an unnatural or anti-natural dimension to the logic of the text, which comprises an intimate exploration of the individual consciousness of each character, the causal drivers of action ought to be explored. Among these “causal agents,” Richardson lists luck, will, chance, fate, coincidence, probability, fantasy, and providence (1997: 14). Each of these drivers has the capacity to connect and inter-relate the various levels of the text. At the same time, in the modern sphere, Richardson traced new forms of causality that pattern relationships, such as “the random,” “the absurd and the logically impossible” (14). Although they are rooted in literature, Richardson’s insights into “the basic types of probability that govern the fictional worlds” may also be of use in discerning the origin of the causal logic present and transposable across the three texts explored in this paper, including the “supernatural,” the “naturalistic,” “chance,” and “metafictional systems of causation” (15). There is a need to understand the implications of opting for one causal pattern or another in terms of discursive strategy.
The generic differences between the novel, screenplay, and film involve other differences in relation to causality. As noted above, the way in which both Farias and León de Aranoa succeed in portraying the resolution of the conflict as somehow “accidental” or coincidental is particularly striking. The logic of the absurd (enacted in the form of obstacles such as hard-headedness, vengefulness and hostility) ends in the image of the body raised to the top of the well without violence by something as simple and natural as rainfall (Farias 120-1). The local people wait patiently at the top of the well. After a day-long roundabout journey on backroads in search of a rope to lift the bloated body, the aid workers had been expecting something else. They had set out to prevent the pollution of the water supply using all the means at their disposal. But it was heavy rain over hours – without thought or intention, in harmony with nature – that raised the body. As the material cause of the story’s end, chance deactivates any human or divine will in the operation of mimesis. Richardson describes it as follows:
The notion of chance as a major force in the unfolding of events is a relatively recent idea and it only begins to emerge toward the end of Enlightenment. There is a very good reason why this would be the case: the existence of chance defies virtually every thoroughgoing variety of theism and can also severely problematize traditional conceptions of materialism (16).
Richardson underscores the radical difference between the causality of chance and the roles played by fate and providence in Greek and Christian storytelling, respectively (16). If chance may resolve the conflict in a narrative, there must be an irrational power that is more authoritative than the poetic. Moreover, as Carmen Sofía Brenes (following García-Noblejas) avers, chance as a causal principle involves incorporating it into the concept of meaning or theme (167). In particular, as Chatman holds, the implied author is a key player in the narrative: (s)he is the one who catalyzes the principles of imagination and meaning within the text (Chatman in Brenes 173). However, chance as a causal power imports an anti-narrative logic into the text. The framing of chance in the narrative must be considered, measured and situated intentionally within the text by the author; in other words, the writer may offer a vision of a chaotic cosmos at the mercy of meaningless forces. The way in which Farias’s view of war has soaked into the novel, as a shaping principle that generates its meaning, may be read in this light. Nonetheless, so long as they are governed by the same shaping principle, other, secondary perspectives may emerge in tandem with the concept of chance as cause. That is the first stage in the author’s transmutation of the world from real to metaphorical, a transformational strategy that at times appears to be natural, and at other times rings false, as Dannenberg observed in his discussion of the new narrative strategies whereby chance is naturalized: “the narrative explanation of coincidence is a key feature: a variety of explanatory patterns, frequently involving causality, are invoked to naturalize the narrative strategy and conceal the authorial manipulation that lies behind it” (1).
Nevertheless, authorial intention or belief alone cannot ensure the textual unity of the narrative (Cartmell and Wheleham 52- 56). Its influence is evident and purposeful in the three texts addressed in this paper. However, in a second metaphorical stage, the real sense of chance events must be drawn out so as to create a new work which unfolds across the broader space of narrative meaning. This unfolding of meaning may even surprise and impress the authors (writer, filmmaker) themselves. Phelan refers to it as “progression” (15), an inner drive in the narration, generating a tension that “is given shape and direction by the way in which an author introduces, complicates, and resolves (or fails to resolve) certain instabilities which are the developing focus of the authorial audience’s interest in the narrative” (15). Indeed, according to Phelan, the idea of progression or movement reads two dimensions of the narrative text in relation to one another:
The first are those occurring within the story, instabilities between characters, created by situations, and complicated and resolved through actions. The second are those created by the discourse, instabilities – of value, belief, opinion, knowledge, expectation – between authors and/or narrators, on the one hand, and the authorial audience on the other (15).
Hence, the conviction with which Farias narrates her personal experience, and its metaphorical transformation into a story progresses through the meaning generated by the relationships between the characters, their goals and environment, which in turn are governed by the structure of the text as a whole with sense (Fitzpatrick and Farquhar, 2019). Farias sees a clear distinction between the two dimensions of the text, although her conviction or belief leaks into the narration of events through the thoughts of the narrator, which encompass both discourses. A subtle shift is evident in how A Perfect Day depicts the logic of the absurd that permeates interpersonal relationships and the meaning of life in a time of war (see Figure 2). The singular narrator is replaced by a more clearly defined cast of characters (Mambrú, B., Damir, Sophie and Katya; and further in the background, Nikola) who, on the one hand, acknowledge in their own way the logic of the absurd and, on the other hand, assume the mantle of grief seen through the jaded and forlorn eyes of the narrator in the novel, Let It Rain.
The pattern of natural causes and rational logic
Farias trails the possibility of rain by repeated references to a storm throughout the novel. The “character” of the rain stays in the background, but it remains on the horizon as a possibility. To explain the key role played by the rain in the novel (and in the third act of the film) requires an understanding of the systematic repetition of the nexus factor, on the one hand, and the presence of an invisible adversary, on the other. The “the systematic repetition of the nexus factor” may be defined as the dramatic framing of an intradiegetic character whose role is to continually make clear the hermeneutic blueprint of the story: the logic of the absurd, of the irrational. This “absurd” character embodies the journey and meaning of war, rendering it comprehensible and coherent as “the soul of history” – that is, as a principle or mythos (Aristotle, Poetics, 1450a, 38-39). By contrast, the “invisible adversary” is a character who moves in the shadows of the main action, facing off against the will of the lead character, enabling a completely meaningful resolution to the conflict. Rain is the invisible adversary in this story; it is perceived as a constant threat by the aid workers in A Perfect Day in their endeavor to raise the body from the well and prevent the pollution of the water supply. However, the perceived role of the rain is different in the novel Let It Rain: rain washes away the cloying stench of death from the fields and the air. The rain is an unruly and uncontrollable force in both the film and the novel, but it is seen in different ways in the different texts. Although it is not a character in the Aristotelian sense of the word (“that which shows moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids”: Poetics, 1450b, 9-10), rain has a powerful impact on the plot in both texts (novel and film). It plays a part in the story; its chance occurrence proves causal. The ending discloses the ironic status of the ingenuity of rain as a main character acting in parallel with the causality effected by human characters. The harmony between the logic of the absurd and a natural force (rain), and their impact on the action described in the narrative, highlight a key aspect of the story and the status of the characters within it: an absurd irrationality, the absence of reason, renders the will of the aid workers irrelevant. In the end, a perfect day depends on their simply letting go and letting it rain.
The Spanish verb dejarse has a passive sense: to let go; and this passive meaning proves significant in the context of the narrative as a whole. Farias uses it to signpost the way in which the personal development of the characters over the course of the novel leads them to abandon or set aside their selves (“B. was too stubborn a man to let himself cry in peace”: 75 and ff.). The flip-side of personal development is letting go, going with the natural flow, like the rain which Farias describes as follows: “water falling, which knows nothing of wars or anger, of justice or injustice, which soaks the earth and leaves its mark” (124). The rain is presented as a natural version of human tears: the heavens weep. This sense of dejarse, letting go, is brought into sharp focus in a statement or conversation between the narrator of the novel and B., one of the characters, in a way that shapes the story as a whole:
Sometimes to lose your footing is the first step on your journey. It doesn’t matter in what direction. I had so much I wanted to say to B., but I didn’t know how. I knew how he felt. I’d often felt that way myself, that no matter how hard you try, things seem to slip away between your fingers like water, that lack of reality I so often experienced (89).
Whether it is chance, fate, evolution or providence, the idea that “Things happen for their own reasons” summarizes the logic that takes control of the narrative, structuring the story and orchestrating its capacity for meaning. This mythic control exercised by a causal agent features in both novel and film, conditioning the interpretation of both texts. However, the role of narrator, along with its thoughts and reflections is erased in the film, thus rendering the story more succinct and action-driven; León de Aranoa ratchets up the tension of the characters’ roundabout search for a new rope so as to show the power of the rain to which the characters will ultimately have to surrender. Nature is the menacing backdrop that dominates the horizon; its power will burst out later, disclosing an order that is paradoxically less irrational than human logic.
Discursive logic and mythic cohesion in tales of the absurd
Aristotle’s definition of plot (1450a, 4, 5, 15) and his account of the logical order of narrative are relevant in this regard (1450b, 27-32). The key point is that the concept of myth encompasses both aspects. At first, Aristotle deals separately with the idea of mythos and the structure of events or incidents (1450a, 32-33). This initial distinction is significant because knowing what a story is about (the “that” to which Heath refers, 56) is not the same as understanding how the elements of the story are structured. Plot structure responds to the question, “why” or “for what,” “in the sense of its final cause” (Heath 56). The “how” of the story stems from the thematic “what” and the causal “for what.” Plot – Latin fabula, for the original Greek mythos – articulates the principle and soul of the narrative. Plot-building is the artistic work of structuring the events or incidents that comprise the story; in Aristotle’s words: “The imitation of the action is the fable. By fable I now mean the contexture of incidents, or the plot” (1450a, 4-5).
Halliwell reads Aristotle as follows: “Mythos designates the formal product of the poet’s art or craft: it denotes the plot-structure which is both the organized design and the significant substance or content of a poem. (…) It is the mimetic representation of an action” (23-24). Thus, fable or plot comprises both content (what is told) and structure (how it is told); and for that reason, Aristotle argues that plot is the most important aspect of tragedy, and of drama in general (1450b, 22-23). The plot expresses content because it presents the single action of the story (mimesis praxeos), and it requires a particular structure because the action must be depicted in one way or another (pragamaton systasis). This is known as plot-structure in narrative terms, and is based on the principles of coherence, unity, intelligibility and recognition. Unity of action is rooted in these principles, as is the possibility of identifying with such action, the purpose of mimemis. The transformation of content into its mimetic representation is an act whereby the former (a memory, a sensation, a feeling, an experience, or a belief) is invested with meaning and structure. An understanding of the epistemological principles underpinning drama discloses its power to transform reality. Halliwell (109) puts it as follows: “(…) mimesis is the key to the primary question of the relation between works of art and the world (characteristically referred to as “nature” in the later tradition)”. The absurd, change, “letting go” may likewise be understood through the framework of plot. A story may be told to give rational shape to the absurd or irrational, without losing sight of its natural origin or giving rise to confusion. The irrational may be expressed in rational form; the absurd may be comprehensible. Mimetic transformation does not vitiate the particular features of the absurd or the irrational; on the contrary, they appear in sharper and clearer relief because the narrative provides the conditions whereby they may be wholly understood, just as it contains the elements that enable true catharsis. How this comes about requires some further explanation. In fact, the kind of understanding described here is the capacity to understand how the irrational and the absurd affect people. On the one hand, the texts reveal the legacy of memory, the images (phantasmata), perceptions and experiences of Farias, and how León de Aranoa in turn has made them his own.
According to Heath, Aristotle defines these as “mediated capacities” (55). Such capacities and perceptions do not depend on reason. At the same time, however, Heath states that “Aristotle distinguishes perception from rational understanding (episteme) by relating the former to particulars and the latter to universals (Apo. 1.31, 87b, 28-88a, 7; Ph. 1.5, 189a5-8; de An. 2.5, 417b21-3)” (55). He goes on to say that, “the ‘that’ is the realm of observable fact, which is accessible to perception; the ‘why’ is the intelligibility of the facts” (55). Hence, these stories of the absurd or irrational nature of war may be read as narratives capable of making them intelligible and rational. In other words, the act of mimesis introduces a comprehensible logic based on poetic syllogism or inferential reasoning. In addition to the wisdom of seeing Aristotelian poetics and logic as interwoven2, the poetic syllogism involves acknowledging a specifically rational ground for fiction as such: images drawn from experience, stored in memory, felt and understood, defer to “a process of directed search” that fosters reflection (Heath 56).
As Kemal points out, the poetic syllogism or statement is not defined in the Poetics; rather, such a definition is given in Aristotle’s books on logic (Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics). Although a full account of what the poetic syllogism means is not among the purposes of this paper, it is worth noting in this regard that it is a means by which fiction makes statements and propositions (not mere copies); in short, how fiction “provide[s] deep truths about ourselves or our place in the world” (Kemal 391). The imagination and interpretation as described by Heath come together in such poetic statements; and in Kemal’s words,
Through imitation, we represent things, using various devices to bring particular aspects of objects and events to attention. Aristotle’s commentators propose that poetic statements are “imagination evoking.” The statements not only “portray” or describe “visible and tangible things, but more specially communicate a mood or feeling.” The claim is that poetic statements invoke resemblances and companions (391).
At the same time, this comprehensive and comparative logic (Kemal 392) has its own rules. In describing the threefold structure of action, for instance, Aristotle makes a very valuable recommendation in relation to the magnitude of a story: “As a rough general formula, ‘a length which allows of the hero passing by a series of probable or necessary stages from misfortune to happiness, or from happiness to misfortune’” (1451a, 12-15). Such are the bounds of both novel and film. Indeed, León de Aranoa offers both a general and a specific definition of his work. In general, A Perfect Day is a microcosm, “an abstract account of war,” in which the goal is not to recount the history of conflict in the Balkans, but to explore the irrationality at the heart of human being because, he says, “our worst enemy is within each one of us” (newspaper interview, La Vanguardia). However, he also gave a more detailed, specific account of how his “fable” or “myth” is structured:
To my mind, A Perfect Day is a drama wrapped in a comedy, which in turn is embedded in a road movie that is, at the same time, related to the war movie genre. So, I think it does have genre features that people can empathize with. The idea was to make a film of intense lights and shades, with a distinct sense of humor, which never loses sight of tragedy either. Both the humor and the drama were to be extreme (León de Aranoa in Sensacine).
Both novel and film move from misfortune to happiness: the structure of the story tends towards a happy ending. Although the rope lifting the body breaks, in the end the body rises up to the top of the well. A sequence of events occurs between the beginning and the happy ending. Nevertheless, the intrinsic tragedy of the tale is that, in spite of the aid workers’ efforts to find a rope to lift out the body, the ending is in no way due to their efforts; the happy ending may be read as a heaven sent response that rewards their desire to help, but nothing more than that. From a moral point of view, the actions of the aid workers amount to failed good intentions: they gesture towards the epic nature of heroic acts, but they do not enact perfect heroism. What began as an apparently easy challenge ends in personal failure. The plot is shaped by the logic of the absurd (see Figure 3). It may be inferred that the rope, the body, the well and the aid workers’ roundabout journey take place in a world marked by the absurdity of missions and solutions in the context of modern warfare.
Nevertheless, this link is established in the texts in line with the principle of necessity that underlies fiction. The logic of the absurd may also assert itself in a narrative framed as a proposition or statement. In fact, Farias offers just such a proposition by articulating the following line of thought:
I wanted to tell him that stuff happens, things don’t always depend on you and the effort you make. In fact, they almost never depend on you. Most of the time it’s a matter of fucking chance, you’re a victim of circumstances, or things are too much for you, or whatever. Things happen for their own reasons. We don’t change anything, life changes us (91).
From the absurd to figurative language
A Perfect Day compiles the fragmented scenes of action narrated by Farias and broadens the cast of characters involved in the plot. León de Aranoa described the purpose of his adaptation as follows:
But how are words turned into images, chapters into scenes? Speeches into looks, endings into beginnings? The heart of the novel – a memory-book of first-person perceptions, reflections framed by the inner voice of the main character – had to be turned into action. The need to find a new rope to raise the body out of the well seemed to offer the best pretext. The search had to be plotted out as far as possible. A rope that the people of a nearby village refuse to sell them. A rope-leash tying a mad dog to the ruins of what was once his house, unaware of the horrors inside. A rope from which to hang the bodies of those we once loved; a rope that kills, that literally drags life out. Maybe the same rope that today, in other hands, could save a life. The act of searching becomes a metaphor for the absurd: the impossibility of solving the simplest problem; common sense dead and buried on the battlefield; the Sisyphean doom of the aid worker. Reason is the first casualty of war. The rope on which the faded tatters of a flag are hoisted in an empty warehouse in the middle of nowhere is a fitting summary of the film’s meaning. B. asks to borrow it from the lone soldier standing guard beside the flagpole: homeland or water? But no flag can be lowered in a time of war. Once more, the sense of urgency, common sense, is in the crosshairs (León de Aranoa 5-6).
In both texts (novel and film), need – that is, what cannot be otherwise, what must be so – stems from Nature, which plays an active role in the story. At the same time, the logic of the absurd highlights how war changes human beings by dehumanizing them. The poetic syllogism or implied process of causality draws a contrast between human acts and the effects of natural events, humanizing the latter. Thus, the active role played by Nature parallels the good will of the aid workers and is figured as such in a number of ways. The rain falls as a backdrop that contrasts with the irrationality of the adversaries and the absurdity experienced by the aid workers. On the one hand, the rain may complicate the roundabout journey along back-roads and prevent the rescue mission; and on the other hand, the irrational behavior of their adversaries causes despair and blights the hearts of the aid workers: rather than meeting allies, the aid workers realize that war means the loss of any common sense in everyday life. In this regard, writing in Cineuropa, Alfonso Rivera concludes that:
What the director does manage to do with this film, however, is demonstrate that violence lays waste to common sense and coherence. He also shows that, in the face of overwhelming misfortune, all we have left is that liberating, revolutionary and cathartic lifesaver – humour. This is what is used as a shield by the international aid workers whom de Aranoa himself met in situ while shooting documentaries. These are human beings who – just like an oncologist or an undertaker – need to use a joke or a witticism in order to distance themselves from pain; this is the only way they can survive in a land riddled with the horrors of war and, thus, the only way they can press on with their work.
The table below presents how rain and its meaning is adapted from page to screen. Rain features as a positive, even liberating, force from the very start of the novel, Let it Rain. In contrast, rain comes later in the screenplay and film, A Perfect Day and it sharpens the focus on the race against the clock to take the body out of the well. The journey they undertake serves as an opportunity to trace the psychological profile and state of mind of aid workers in wartime. In fact, León de Aranoa locates the center of action on (1) B., Sophie and Mambrú’s efforts to recover the body, thus reflecting on cynicism, innocence and experience; and (2) how the search for a rope weaves relationships with other players in the theater of war: the UNPROFOR soldiers (scenes 7, 8, 9, 11), the shop-owner that refuses to sell them a rope (because he keeps his stock for use in hangings), the local water-sellers keen to turn a profit from the situation, the local authorities, the village, the military command, some UN soldiers, and the children that buy Nikola’s ball from him. León de Aranoa heightens the sense of the absurd in the film by highlighting the role of adversary characters in refusing to help the aid workers; this contrasts with the magical wandering back and forth between the “tears of rain” and the memories of the aid workers in the novel, A Perfect Day. There is little or no nostalgia or melancholy in León de Aranoa’s road movie version: the pressure of action is unrelenting.
Dejarse llover [Let it Rain]: the novel
Un día perfecto [A Perfect Day]: the screenplay
p. 61: “The storm has made everything dark and I don’t think it’s a good idea to drive along these roads”.
p. 113. Scene 54 Road. Well...We’re fine, as long as it doesn’t rain.
A sudden clap of thunder and the first raindrops of a storm fall on the windshield. (…) It pours down with rain on the two Patrols.
-Under intense rain the people grab the lifeless body and pull it out as if their lives depended on it.
Farias allows the body to surface and lets the current carry it away, out of the sight of the onlookers. In contrast, León de Aranoa allows the aid workers to intervene too, in the wake of the rain, to bring the body to a more dignified resting place. This small act of reverence makes a big difference between the texts. Nature and human beings proceed along parallel lines, their interests interwoven by chance. However, in A Perfect Day, the aid workers complement the effect of the rain, rendering the situation somewhat less absurd: it is as though they had waited patiently for the rain to do its work. They are aid workers in a time of war. Both novelist and filmmaker aim to show what it means to be happy, how to act in the theater of war. The key is to let it rain, to let go and allow oneself to be aided by the rain.
The rain as principle of eudaimonia
Aristotle says that a “beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be” (Poetics, 1450b, 27-29). A causal logic runs through the story as a whole, to set up the ending without the need for the intervention of a deus ex machina. As discussed above, this logic stems from the implicit principle of nature; it is a way of rounding out the sense of the absurd throughout the story, while also alleviating the anguish of the characters and offering them some hope. The final end is to be found in the very beginning. The rain that falls at the end and resolves the problem was present from the start in the water in the well. The rain is the source of water that fills the well and, at the same time, the source of eudaimonia that fills the hearts of the aid workers: “the sight was simply perfect” because the rain fell. This eudaimonia or happiness is internal or introspective. What happens, according to Nagel, is not only the activity proper to human beings in which eudaimonia occurs: “(...) in the activity of the most divine part of man, functioning on accordance with its proper excellence. This is the activity of theoretical contemplation” (252). As it is suggested above, aid workers in addition with the action of Nature and the logic of drama, imposed by the mythos (the fabula and the pattern of events) create a complete and ensouled whole. Farias emphasizes the final momentous event and León de Aranoa highlights the contrast between the ending and the fruitless efforts made throughout the film. Everybody lets go, lets things happen, simply lets it rain. Farias compares the story to a symphony, a perfect drama, a film with a happy ending:
And the water carried it [the body] downhill to the surprise of all of us there witnessing the spectacle. No one felt the lack of a soundtrack or rolling credits. The sight was simply perfect, but then it was over and no one started clapping, because it was not a time for applause, because there are things that do not need to be dressed up or tricked out. There was no clapping but we felt relieved, a feeling of lightness, better than the best kinds of applause.
Soon afterwards it stopped raining and that was really the end of it all (…) Why are we always so driven to go back there, no matter what the cost, to that world where no one expects to be given a moment of magic or to experience that feeling of light (125-6)?
The connotations of sight and spectacle disclose the meaning the novelist attributes to the events she describes, as well as her vision of literature. For Farias, telling a story is a sort of liberating transformative act: “turning sorrows into stories, the good into heroes and the bad into villains, is the best way to dispel the sense of emptiness we sometimes feel in this treacherous life, which seems always to be heading towards the same destination, always heading to one end” (130). Her conception of storytelling highlights the need to understanding everything, even the incomprehensible. The magic that solves problems is neither a product of chance nor an act of the human will; rather, it is a kind of natural solidarity, a moment of general good-naturedness, which enables people to enjoy “a feeling of lightness” beyond their otherwise rule-bound and “predictable” lives (126). Farias also observes that the true scale of things, the kind of perfection brought about by such magic, only becomes clear with time: “(…) the scale on which they will be told and shared by word of mouth, turning into literature, which in the last analysis is the only truth that can comfort us when all else fails” (129).
In the Poetics, Aristotle’s implicit definition of metaphor suggests that it is the transformation and depiction of life, to which we might add the “happy or unhappy life” by drawing on the idea of eudaimonia . The transformation of natural forms in the poetic process is a creative act, and the purpose of poetic creation is to show what happiness is in practical terms. It is rooted in mythos, the soul of history, which shapes its structure. Thus, the principle of happiness in Let It Rain and A Perfect Day must be traced to the nature of fiction in the object of imitation. According to Díaz Tejera (2), the natural principles of evolution and creation are taken up in Aristotle’s Poetics as metaphors for art. However, such causality is different to that of nature itself. Causality in nature is defined as an identity between cause and effect; and anomalies occur if that link is disrupted. However, causality in poetics allows for the possibility of “otherness” – that is, change may give rise to new perspectives and approaches (Díaz Tejera 2), and even new objects. This is Nature seen in relation to the life of human beings (see Figure 4). The causal linkage proffered by Farias and León de Aranoa maps the limits of the meaning of happiness; however, it does so not through the agency of Nature itself, but through the relationship between Nature and the characters in the story.
Happiness in the lives of the idealistic aid workers
For Aristotle, “life” is “men in action” (Poetics, 1448a, 1); and “these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are (…)” (Poetics, 1448a, 2-5). The main characters in the novel and the film strive – and will go on striving – to be of a higher type, to be better people than in real life.
While Farias opens her novel with an account of how the text is organized, she is also interested in the value of human experience: “(…) of that time and all that happened I remember only a few small things, a few fragments of memory, not of reality” (17), a “sketch of feelings.” This idea of the story as a mesh of fragmented memory denotes a mode of expression and of judgment: memory is selective and evaluative. The description of each situation, character and action is tinged with judgment. “Time” too acquires a specific connotation in relation to characters living in a time of war: “(…) it was time to put away childish things, time to become people with patched up bodies and souls” (17-18). Thus, for Farias’s characters, relationships are bound up with thoughts and things: she develops character to a greater degree in relation to their symbolic and artificial value than with regard to their real dimension associated with lived experience. Such is the case of the description of booby-trap bombs: “There are booby-trap bombs everywhere, but above all under need, nostalgia, dignity and fear; those things that lead us to forget that we are vulnerable and to ignore common sense (…), turning us into puppets of their black humor” (31); “be careful with dignity, dignity is booby-trapped” (33). Farias’s remark about the loss of common sense prompts the conclusion that everybody in wartime, not only those who in this story stand in the aid workers’ way, end up through fear playing a part in the absurd madness. This perspective is echoed throughout the personal reflection sections in the novel.
However, in terms of action, Farias tells the story of an NGO aid worker in a time of war in Europe. Her relationship to the other characters in the story is analytical: she recalls her experience and assesses it, to a certain extent, at a distance, as though she were talking about ghosts. Phelan’s threefold classification of character-types may be illuminating in this regard: “the mimetic (character as person), the thematic (character as idea) and the synthetic (character as an artificial construct)” (29). Farias’s characters rarely pertain in the same way to all three dimensions. For instance, the aid workers figure more as people rather than as ideas or artificial/dehumanized constructs. Dardan, Osman and B. have names and express strong feelings (75, 78, 83). On the other hand, the soldiers are primarily thematic: “A camouflaged armored vehicle cut across and blocked the road. A tall, blond, well-built guy in camouflage like the vehicle, indistinguishable from all the other tall, blond, well-built guys with him, asked for our papers in a fairly fierce voice” (55). Farias makes the following observation based on her own experience of UN soldiers: “They don’t know where they are or what they’re at. They travel the world in their green uniforms, blue helmets, with their toys, and the whole world makes no difference to them (…)” (59). She refers to them again later – their inhumane unnaturalness, their bureaucratic souls: “The green-camouflaged soldiers continued their obscene deployment, their peculiar bullying ways, shamelessly and arrogantly sticking their noses in everywhere, without ever asking for permission, without being invited” (82). The business of war is also colored by this view; Farias refers to “tele-wars” and “war-experiments”, which drum up a kind of solidarity that – in her view – is short-lived and serves only to soothe and silence the conscience: “As though a patchwork of colors could cover so much indifference” (67). However, such critical judgment is not limited only to soldiers; the victims too may act in tactical ways, like “the old men” who abandon their families, assuming that no one will do them any harm (chapter VII): “That’s the way of war. They kill you and they have no idea where the bullets are coming from. They probably don’t care either” (73). In short, in an absurdly irrational world, every human act is meaningless. Still and all, however, these aid workers continue to do whatever they can “because there is no better job in the world” (Farias 15).
From the point of view of poetics, Let It Rain and A Perfect Day are outstanding examples of how an original text and its adapted version enable reflection on the transformation of reality into a meaningful narrative shaped by causality. The distinctive causality in this case somehow succeeds in creating the impression that the events depicted happen by chance. However, there is a logical-rhetorical explanation for this apparent paradox. Creative metaphorization renders the irrationality of war comprehensible in relation to the aid-worker characters. Given this causal dynamic, the novel may be read as prioritizing an ethic of abandonment, dejarse as an emblem of happiness, dramatizing the sense of frustration experienced by the aid workers. By contrast, the film presents a less passive approach: the search for a rope is more driven and determined, and the aid workers use the rain to help them take the body out of the well.
At the same time, while the author’s rage with the war establishment may be read between the lines of the novel (see pages 59 and 67, among others), the film focuses on the absurd lines of reasoning (also set out in the novel) that underpin armed conflict by depicting the action prompted by such anger. In his screenplay, León de Aranoa aims to humanize the war without glossing over its horrors. “I brought back from Bosnia the sense of madness, of a labyrinth, of powerlessness, of awful confusion. The first casualty of conflict is reason, and from then on everyone is engaged on a different line of thinking: to do harm,” said León de Aranoa in an interview with RTVE, the national public service broadcasting network in Spain. This sense of the absurd becomes a theme of history through other aspects of the experience of war: the madness that prevents communication or peaceful coexistence, the chaos, dehumanization and despair. The realization of this line of thinking in narrative form poses a challenge to the author, and is a mechanism that shapes the film adaptation.
León de Aranoa runs two forces against one another: on the one hand, the main characters who have kept their heads on straight in the midst of the turmoil, although they are not immune to the follies of others, each in his or her own way and on the other, their adversary, the flagbearer of the absurd, articulated in different voices: victims, witnesses and the army. Thus, the human prospect of the film is ironic: the aid workers yearn for practical solutions that link the devastated reality around them to an idea of justice that bears no relation to the context in which they find themselves; it emerges from their desire to help. Nevertheless, the ending of the film offers an interpretation of this human journey – and, to a certain extent, renders it unnecessary. According to Nussbaum (1997), poetic justice performs a twofold function in history: it facilitates the restoration of order and it cultivates hope, even when there appears to be no reason to believe in a satisfactory ending. An unexpected rainfall solves the problem. This natural phenomenon is poetic and comes about for no apparent reason, without stunts or tricks.
The ingenuity of a story in which rain functions as a saving power is how irrationality is made comprehensible. León de Aranoa shows the rain falling on all of the characters who had been overwhelmed by madness or a victim to it as the plot unfolded, prompting them to work together to bring the body to a proper resting place. In the novel, the body is carried away by the current; the physicality of life is foregrounded through the importance attributed to food, to the character development effected when people meet one another again, and to memory. No action seems to be of any use. By contrast, in the film, the material reality presented in the novel is transformed into conversations about war, about family, childhood and personal relationships. This shift has a significant impact on the characters. Each character’s desires drive his or her fate. In both novel and adaptation, the aid workers are thoughtful individuals, tirelessly at the service of others. There is no close-up in the depiction of characters: as they see fit, the aid workers serve others to the best of their ability. Although Let It Rain and A Perfect Day figure the reader or viewer within a process of comprehensive meaning, they create different impressions as tales of the absurd and of the madness of war.
1 The title of the novel in Spanish involves a play on words. “Dejarse llover” looks and sounds like the expression “dejarse llevar”, which means to let go, to go with the flow. A Perfect Day (2015) is a Mediapro, Reposado and TVE production, written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa with the collaboration of Diego Farias. The cast includes Benicio del Toro as main character; Mélanie Thierry, Olga Kurylenko, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic and Tim Robbins. The film was nominated for a number of major awards at the Premios Feroz; it was the only Spanish film screened at Cannes that year, and won the Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
2 The term 'poetic syllogism' was coined by Arab commentators on Aristotle. See Kemal 2003.
3 For more on coercion in the Hannibal-Clarice relationship, and the significance of replacing that dynamic with a consensual one, see Messimer.
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